I come here not to bury the Spurs, but to praise them.
That's right, me, a Laker fan, has come here to write a postmortem of sorts and to pay homage to the Lakers' greatest rivals over the last 15 years: the San Antonio Spurs. Last night the Spurs were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2000, and for the first time in Tim Duncan's storied career in the NBA. Some have said that the defeat marks the end of the Spurs' time as championship contenders, that their championship window has closed, that the sun has set on this most successful team of the post-Jordan NBA. The Spurs are a team that for many, myself included, conjured up extremely strong feelings of distaste, disgust and dismay for many, many years. But they conjured up a couple other things as well: fear, and then later, respect.
The Spurs, of course, are one of many Western Conference teams that has long considered themselves a big rival of the Lakers; but as I've said before, this did not make them unique. The Spurs joined the NBA after the ABA was merged with the league back in 1976, and thus began what was originally a rather one-side rivalry with the Lakers, the likes of which many Western teams are still embroiled in. This finally began to change in the 1990s, first with the arrival of now Hall of Fame center, David Robinson, and then later with the arrival of future Hall of Fame power forward, Tim Duncan. Following Robinson's arrival, the Spurs ascended to the elite ranks of the Western teams, a spot which was up for grabs following the end of the long dominance of the Lakers' Showtime Era.
Robinson led the Spurs to the Western Conference Finals in 1995, after an MVP season and 62 regular season wins; but along the way the Spurs ran into another upstart team that gave them some problems in the second round: the Nick Van Exel-Eddie Jones led Lake Show. In a series that few Laker fans who were watching at the time will ever forget, those young Lakers threw a real scare into the Spurs, pushing the Spurs to six games, including one of the all-time great Laker playoff finishes by Nick Van Exel in Game 5 with his three point shot to send the game to overtime and his three pointer to win it in the overtime period. Thus begun what has since become the NBA's greatest rivalry of the last two decades, with the two teams meeting six more times in the playoffs, and collecting seven championships between them.
But even though the history of the rivalry existed between these teams prior to that meeting in the playoffs in 1995, and even though the seeds for many truly epic battles were first planted in that year, this rivalry didn't really begin in earnest till the three biggest players were all added to these teams. Namely Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan. As any true Laker fan knows, Shaq and Kobe were both added together, in the summer of 1996, and this kicked off a run of success which lasted till 2004 when Shaq was traded and the Lakers were reformed into the team they've become today. The Spurs got their own final piece a year later when they drafted Tim Duncan following a disastrous 1996-97 season (which some have pointed to as the beginning of "tanking" in the NBA).
The Spurs soon learned, as the Lakers have known for a while, that when you're very successful for an extended period of time, you create a bunch of rivalries; and they started right away, eliminating the Phoenix Suns in the first round in Tim Duncan's rookie year. This became a recurring theme for the Men in Black, as San Antonio went on to meet, and beat, the Suns in 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2008, with Phoenix's one win in this rivalry coming in 2000 in a series that Duncan missed due to injury.
However, with the above paragraphs as evidence to the contrary, my aim here is not really to summarize the entire history of the Spurs or even their rivalry to the Lakers. I would assume even a casual fan of either team is well familiar with the battles these teams have had with each other and their seven title runs the teams have had between them. Instead I want to focus on what has happened with the Spurs since the last time they won, in 2007, and what their future looks like (and whether that championship window is indeed shut). Following their sweep over the LeBron-led Cavs in 2007, I for one thought entering last season that the Spurs would again be the team to beat, and we would most likely be looking at a Spurs over Celtics NBA Finals. The Spurs were just such a well-oiled machine and had so much championship pedigree, and so much talent and depth that I didn't see how they could lose.
Of course, as we all remember last year, it soon became apparent that the much-heralded bench of that 2007 championship Spurs team had suddenly gotten real old, real fast. Players like Bruce Bowen, Brent Barry, Robert Horry, Kurt Thomas, Fabricio Oberto and Michael Finley all of a sudden looked a step (or two or three) slow, and as a result the Big Three of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan were suddenly surrounded by a bunch of question marks, rather than a group of solid veteran role players. The Spurs still had a rather typical Spurs run through the regular season, finishing third in the West, and ultimately battled the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals; but their depth was further weakened with an ankle injury to Manu Ginobili, and just like that the Big Three became the Dynamic Duo, and the Lakers won in five.
Last summer I felt that the Spurs were not dead, or in serious trouble, and that odds were good they'd do some of their usual reloading, including a diamond plucked from the rough (which usually has meant foreign-born gems), and they'd be a serious threat once again. But oddly enough the Spurs did what I least expected them to do and basically did nothing. With the obvious problem of age and lack of athleticism staring the Spurs in the face they did not overhaul their roster, but instead did some minor tinkering and decided to give it a go with essentially the same flawed roster from the previous year. Only this year the injury problems worsened, as Ginobili went down multiple times and ultimately for the season, and Tim Duncan began to have knee problems; and as a result this time it was the Mavs who beat San Antonio in five, only they did it in the first round as opposed to the Conference Finals.
So what now for the Spurs? I'm seeing a lot of talk out there that they are washed up and finished, but honestly I feel the same way now that I did about them a year ago: they've still got a great trio of players in Duncan, Ginobili and Parker, and ultimately they just need to add a little bit to that core and they'll be very dangerous again in the fall. But who could they add?
This is promising to be one of the most interesting offseasons in recent memory, for two main reasons: 1) the economy stinks right now and so owners are losing money hand over fist as attendance threatens to plummet, so there is a good likelihood of another NBA lockout looming on the horizon; and 2) the summer of 2010 has long been seen as this golden conocopia, brimming with untold free agent riches, so it is assumed many teams will be unlikely to blow their 2010 salary cap on free agents this summer. As a result, while there are a number of fairly high profile free agents expected to be hitting the market this summer, it's unknown who, if any, of them will command more than MLE money. If this is true, it is likely that teams who are expected to compete for a title next season will probably try their hardest to acquire some of these players.
So what players are out there that could help the Spurs? Well there are a couple Lakers for starters: Lamar Odom and Trevor Ariza. It's currently up in the air and/or somewhat unknown as to what the Lakers might be willing to spend to retain these two players, but if San Antonio is able to work something sweeter than what the Lakers offer, who's to say what could happen? Odds are good that LA would outbid the Spurs to keep these players, but San Antonio doesn't necessarily need to get into a bidding war with LA to get some quality free agents. Other players out there who may be forced to sign for less than they'd prefer are the Pistons' trio of Allen Iverson, Rasheed Wallace and Antonio McDyess, and any one of those three could offer some real help to the Spurs (assuming Greg Popovich could work his magic and get them to buy into the San Antonio system). Another possibility out there could be someone like Shawn Marion. That's the thing about this summer: it's one big question mark.
So that's why I said at the beginning that I didn't come to bury the Spurs, because I for one don't think that they're dead quite yet. I think we haven't seen the last of these guys, so you shouldn't be surprised if they pop up again next year in that old familiar role of "thorn in the Lakers' side". But I also said I came to praise the Spurs, and that's because if they are in fact dead, then they really are truly worthy of praise and respect. The run they've had over the last decade is among the best that any team in league history has ever had, probably ranking fourth behind Bill Russell's Celtics, Magic & Kareem's Lakers and Michael Jordan's Bulls. Many have accused the Spurs over the years of being boring, or too defensive-minded, or even dirty at times, but IMO they have proven to be one of the hardest-working and classiest teams in the league. They have never been a team to make excuses and have always accepted defeats and setbacks by taking the blame squarely on their shoulders, and often with a sly amount of humor to boot. If the Spurs are truly dead, then I for one am going to miss them. We Laker fans couldn't ask for a better rival.